Why Do We Listen to Music?

...younger and older people listen to music ... and experience benefits to well-being through different mechanisms

Musical preference changes with age. Mature listeners are often baffled by the musical choices of younger people - what is inspiring and uplifting to one is a terrible cacophony to another. Similarly, teenagers rarely “get” the tunes their parents find enjoyable. Musical taste is non-objective, and therefore very difficult to study scientifically up to the point that some say that there is no sense in arguing about musical preference. The teenager may never understand why mom loves the song “White room” and the mom may never be able to appreciate the aesthetic value of “We Dem Boyz”.

What is behind this disconnect? Music listening is a powerful way to support well-being, irrespective of age. However, according to a study published this July by Jenny Groarke and Michael Hogan from the National University of Ireland, younger and older people listen to music for different reasons and experience benefits to well-being through different mechanisms.

...younger participants voted social connection, affect regulation and reminiscence as most important factors that connect music listening to well-being

In the study, researchers sought to explain why younger and older adults listen to music, and how the reported reasons for music listening are connected to well-being. The participants were 25 young adults (18-30 yrs) and 19 older adults (60-75 yrs). They investigated music listening habits through Interactive Management, a technique that comprises facilitated group discussions. The method contained three phases: 1) idea generation 2) voting, and 3) structural modeling.

The first phase, idea generation, entailed posing a simple question “Why do you listen to music?” to both participant groups. The participants first independently generated answers to this question. The answers were then pooled for the second step which involved the participants voting for five ideas they felt were most significant for supporting well-being. In the third phase, the participants examined overarching structures connecting the reasons for music listening and well-being outcomes with the help of special software.

Why We Listen to Music - SyncProject.co

In the first idea generation phase of the method, participants came up with several answers to the question of why they listen to music. In the younger subjects, reasons for music listening included things like stress relief, bonding, and personal meaning. In older subjects, reasons included meditative effects, reducing loneliness, and novelty. The reasons for music listening were then pooled into categories and after the voting phase, the most popular categories could be compared. The younger participants voted social connection, affect regulation and reminiscence as most important factors that connect music listening to well-being. The older participants voted personal meaning, therapeutic benefits and affect regulation as most important.

The results indicate that irrespective of age, people believe that music listening has an effect on their well-being. However, the mechanisms through which beneficial effects on well-being are achieved seem to vary between different age groups and includes emotional experiences, reminiscence, experience of meaning and transcendence through music listening, among others.

Music supports well-being in a multitude of ways. It can be used for stress relief, as part of social bonding as well as for emotional regulation. As we age, our goals and needs change, as well as own sense of what constitutes well-being. As a result, the ways in which music can support well-being also change. In future studies, it will be interesting to explore what individual needs for well-being are in different contexts, how age influences them and how music could specifically be used to respond to these needs, throughout life.

By Marko Ahtisaari and Ketki Karanam



Groarke, J. M., & Hogan, M. J. (2015). Enhancing wellbeing: An emerging model of the adaptive functions of music listening. Psychology of Music, 44(4), 769–791. doi:10.1177/0305735615591844